I didn’t tell you about this when it happened, but last fall I had a bit of a health scare. I was getting changed and my wife noticed a sizeable skin discoloration on my back. Even worse, it surrounded a mole I wasn’t sure was there before. She immediately thought skin cancer.
I spend a lot of time outdoors in the summer, sometimes without a shirt. So when we saw the rash, I booked an appointment with the doctor right away.
Thankfully, the rash was nothing more than a common bacterial infection that was easily treated. But it could have been much, much worse.
Finding Skin Cancer with Regular Self-Checks
Skin cancer can creep up on you over time. It doesn’t just appear in a noticeable place out of thin air. And just because you’ve been indoors or covered up all winter, doesn’t mean you’re immune. With summer just around the corner and sunlight exposure destined to increase, it’s important to stay on top of skin care. If you catch potential skin cancer in the early stages, you have an excellent chance of beating the disease with a simple, minimal surgery.
Aside from wearing hats, seeking shade, applying sunscreen, and covering up when needed, it’s also a good idea to perform regular at-home skin checks. After all, you may have genes that increase your risk for skin cancer. An estimated 5% to 10% of melanoma skin cancers are inherited.
Five-Step Skin Cancer Self-Check
The following skin cancer check can be performed in five easy steps. But first, you’ll want to check your skin under the right conditions. Typically, this is under good lighting and right after you come out of the shower or bath, so your skin is clean. Use both full-length and handheld mirrors so you can conduct a thorough examination from head to toe.
Look at your scalp, ears, face, and neck. You might need to use a comb or blow dryer to move hair for a better view. You’ll be looking for any moles or discoloration in this step and in steps 2–4.
Look at your back and the front of your upper body in the mirror. Raise your arms to look at your sides. Don’t forget your forearms, hands, and under the nails.
Check your legs and genital areas.
Sit down and closely examine your feet, including the bottom of your feet, under your nails, and in between your toes.
Identify all existing moles and familiarize yourself with their shape and feel. This will alert you of any changes, sensitivities, or new moles. If you notice anything new or unusual, see your doctor right away.
Regular Skin Checks Are Crucial
New moles that look different, feel different, or are surrounded by flaky patches; sores that don’t heal; and other irregularities can all be cause for scheduling a doctor’s visit. But if you don’t know how you currently look, it’s hard to notice something new.
Write down your findings in a dated journal to track irregularities and give yourself the best chance at spotting a potential problem early. Do a check every month or two and update your journal every time, so you can catch a potential cancerous mole or other issues in a timely way.
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Solan, M., “Checking for Skin Cancer,” Harvard Medical School, March 2017; http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/checking-for-skin-cancer, last accessed March 29, 2017.
“Is Skin Cancer Genetic?” Stanford Health Care; https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/cancer/skin-cancer/causes-skin-cancer/genetics-skin-cancer.html, last accessed March 29, 2017.